This type of conflict resolution scene is familiar in many workplaces: Two or more amazing people who are dedicated to furthering the wonderful work your nonprofit conducts are actively in conflict. It starts with a perceived slight, follows with silent anger, gradually simmers into personal jabs and eventually escalates into outright confrontation. Well-meaning nonprofit managers find themselves mediating a situation they do not have the tools to resolve. The conflict goes unresolved, ebbing and flowing between moderate calm and outright explosion.
Nonprofits are so dedicated to their causes that they frequently forget that they better serve their clients by implementing effective conflict resolution approaches to help employees interact more effectively. Managers and staff tend to shy away from addressing conflict because they function under the misapprehension that the conflict will get worse if they acknowledge it. The opposite is true: conflict is reduced when we set up a climate in our organization that allows people to work out their differences.
Nonprofit managers have a profound effect on the conflict climate in their workplaces. One approach to conflict resolution I’ve never seen succeed in my experience working with nonprofit staffs is minimizing, ignoring or rule imposition. Minimizing neglects to give the issue the importance it deserves, ignoring simply pretends there is not a problem and rule imposition proscribes a solution that only drives the conflict underground. Yet a majority of talented managers seem to use these approaches. We fall into the trap of thinking the problem will go away or work itself out rather than actually doing something to change the dynamic. It has been my experience that a proactive approach defuses conflict before it escalates.
Nonprofit managers can ameliorate conflict by following some basic steps.
1. Set the tone for the organization. If your organization welcomes conflict as an opportunity for growth and does so respectfully, then people are more likely to work with each other and you to resolve issues.
2. Bring the parties together. Ask the parties involved to join you to sit down and talk. Pay special attention to reminding everyone that this is a forum where all ideas are valid and all points of view are listened to and respected. Emphasize that your are doing this so both sides can win.
3. Ask each party to tell their story. Emphasize that this is an opportunity for each person to tell his or her story. Ask your staff to listen actively to what the other person says. Each person gets to say what he or she wants, uninterrupted and with no corrections or advice giving. When one person is talking everyone else is listening.
4. Ask each party to propose one or two resolutions. Give your staff the power to fix their own conflicts by coming up with their own resolutions. Remember that all ideas are welcomed, you are setting up a climate that welcomes people’s ideas on how to resolve the issue.
5. Ask the parties to choose which resolution they would like to work on together. Remember that both parties should fully agree. If they don’t, then go back to step 4.
6. Ask each party what they are willing to commit to today to work on the resolution.
Please note that each of these steps should be followed in order and fully completed before moving on to the next step. Effective managers play a key part in the process because they set up a situation where both sides win and work actively together to create a solution. The manager’s job is to facilitate the process and not get in the way.
We spend so much time creating obstacle to harmony in the workplace that this approach is a refreshing alternative that allows people to take charge of the issue themselves instead of having an unsatisfactory resolution imposed from outside. When people generate their own resolutions they tend to abide by them more because they are more invested in them. Managers sometimes get stuck showing people the policies and procedures or imposing outside dictums rather than taking the time up front to help people craft their own resolutions.
The key benefit of this conflict resolution approach is that it gives your nonprofit the chance to get rid of festering interpersonal conflicts that do not go away with traditional approaches. Try this approach and enjoy the rewards that come from resolving conflicts in the workplace.